September 27, 2019

Solar Project Part 5: Back Porch Preparations

[I changed the title of this series from "solar pantry" to "solar project," because we changed our original plan. Part 1 of the series starts here.]

So the plan is to move the freezer from the pantry to the back porch and put it on solar. That meant we had to do some rearranging on the porch to get ready. Like most other big projects, that meant a number steps - both planned and unplanned.

About eight years ago, when we were remodeling the kitchen, we took a detour to create a temporary remodeler's kitchen on the back porch.

November 2011 photo of my "temporary" kitchen.
Since then it's been my canning and summer kitchen. 

It served us well, because it took us another year before the kitchen was finished (before and after shots here). Once the kitchen was done I left the electric stove on the porch for canning and whatever summer-time cooking we don't do with my solar oven or Dan's grill.

About three years ago we moved the cabinet in the above photo into the new milking room of the old goat barn. In its place we put shelves.

Very handy for canning pots, coolers, laundry supplies,
my dehydrator, campfire cast iron, and recycling bins.

Now we're planning to move the freezer to this spot, so the shelves needed to be moved. That set off a cleaning binge, and while we were at it, it seemed like a good time to finish the trim around the doors and paint the walls. Years ago I put a coat of primer on the walls, but at the time we were more eager to get on with finishing the kitchen rather than the back porch. So this is how it's looked for the past eight years.

Funny how you can live with something for
so long that you don't even notice it anymore.

Dan put up some trim and gave it a coat of paint.

It feels good to finish something 
that's been unfinished for so long!

I wanted to keep at least one shelf unit on the back porch for my canners, large pots, and recycling bins, so I put it next to the stove.

New home for my my canners, canning
& cheesemaking pots, and recycling bins.

We never use the door behind it, so this seemed like a handy place. Well, it was the only place! I used to have a small table there and I'll miss that, but this solution won out for practicality.

Improving ventilation to the back porch was the next task. I used an old metal box fan in the window for years and that worked well. Then the old fan died and the new plastic one just doesn't have the strength to vent the well, especially when I'm canning. Our solar attic vent fan has worked so well that Dan installed a similar one on the back porch.

Another wall we didn't finish when we did that
side of the house. Made it easier to install the fan!

While he was working on that I started to clean out the freezer in preparation for moving it. Quite a few of the items I mentioned in Solar Pantry Part 2: Analysis could be vacuum packed instead of frozen.

I find healthy ingredient crackers and cookies at a local discount
grocery. At 50-75₵ per box they make good stock-up prepper items.

I couldn't believe how many boxes I had stashed in the freezer!
They stay fresh and moth-free when vacuum packed. How-to here.

I also use my freezer for small harvest amounts, like tomatoes, figs, and berries. I rarely get enough at any one picking for a canner load, so I pop them into the freezer and can them when the weather turns cooler. I do the same with bones for bone broth. This year I'm getting everything processed early to clear out the freezer.

Crock pot of pizza sauce cooking down.

Once Dan is done with the fan, he'll finish that wall and then we'll move the freezer. Of course, progress seems slow going right now, but that's what happens when a seemingly simple project ends up with a lot of small steps! But all the steps are good ones, and it will be nice to finally finish the back porch. It's been a good September project.

Next in this series → Back Porch Progress

September 23, 2019

Chicken Yard Project: Duck House

I've shown you our new compost bin and the new grazing beds. That leaves the last subgoal on the chicken yard project list - a duck house.

We have two Muscovy ducks, and to be honest, the chickens and the ducks don't exactly get along. They constantly squabble over food and egg laying spots. One of our ducks has a (dud) nest in the chicken house and she chases all the chickens out! So Dan decided it was time to make the ducks their own home.

Framing attached to the compost bins.

It will include a house and a small "pond" made of a small stock tank.

The platform is the cement boards from the back of the old compost bin.

Dan fitted the duck tank with a hose bib, so it can be drained and the water used for the compost and grazing beds.

Hose bib installed in the tank for a hose to water compost & grazing beds.

It will be filled with rain water from the milking room catchment tanks.

The duck house was made from scraps.

Openings in the back will have doors and be to collect eggs.

Facing away from winter weather. 

Once the house was done, Dan tried to coax the ducks with feed to take a look. But they've ignored it!

Gee, Sam, I wonder why.

They've been broody, however, (on unfertilized eggs), and have been are pretty much fixated on that task. They're coming out of it now, so Dan filled the tank with water in hopes they'd notice. Ducks are amazing at finding fresh water.

Water sampling by Meowy.

Mrs. #2 Duck checked it out several days later but didn't stay long. The next afternoon we heard splashing in the pond.

Stealth photo taken from the workshop window.

Both ducks took a swim and a bath! They haven't been interested in their new house, but they usually roost outdoors at night when they aren't broody. Maybe next egg laying season they'll like the spot.

That completes the chicken yard project list. Chickens and ducks seem happy with the improvements, and that makes us happy too.

UPDATE: Tuesday, Sept. 24. #2 duck was seen checking out the duck house twice today. She went inside and took a look around. But they still prefer to roost on top of the chicken coop.

September 19, 2019

Upland Rice Threshed and Rough Yield

A couple weeks ago I told you about harvesting my upland rice.

My first ever rice harvest!

After harvesting, there are three steps to processing rice: threshing, dehulling, and winnowing. Having hulls makes it a bit more complicated than processing wheat, but I plan to take it one step at a time. Threshing was my first step. My question was, how?

The first thing that came to mine was our yard-mulcher-turned-grain-thresher.

Our first little mulcher was inadequate for that task, so Dan turned it
 into a feed processor (how-to here). We also use it for threshing wheat.

Made from an old Yard Machine brand chipper/mulcher, we've been using it to thresh our wheat for several years. The rice harvest was small enough that a simpler method seemed more in order.

Threshing screen on top of the wheelbarrow. 

My threshing screen is a frame with quarter-inch hardware cloth stapled to the bottom. The grain heads are rubbed on the screen and fall through into the wheelbarrow. It's a slow method, but good for smaller harvests. This worked fairly well, and also taught me something about harvesting rice. Even though I cut it when the heads were golden brown, I should have let it dry out more before cutting it. I say this because the grains were stubborn to be loosened from the stalk. Proper ripeness is the fine point between green and shattering (which is when the seed falls on it's own to the ground). I had to figure this out for wheat, so I'm not surprised I'd have to learn for the rice too.

The result.

I planted a quarter of an ounce (7 gram seed packet) and yielded just under four pounds before dehulling and winnowing. Not as much as I had hoped, but considering how hot and dry our summer has been, I'm still pleased. I will definitely grow upland rice again next year.

The next step will be learning how to dehull it. (Another learning curve new adventure!)

September 15, 2019

Not Conducive For Fall Planting

This is the time of year I should be thinking about the fall garden, but it's been too hot and dry. So hot and dry that the lawn crunches when it's walked on. Our days have pretty much been like this...

Friday's rainfall turned out to be an eighth of an inch.

Rain has been scarce this month too, with our last halfway decent rainfall of 0.7" about a month ago. Even with watering, those upper 90s mean that the last of the summer garden has been in survival mode. These conditions are not conducive for either growing or fall planting.

What to do? If I wait until October to plant, I'll end up with an early spring garden instead of a fall harvest! I had to do something, so I got out my seed trays and planted some starts.

Seed trays planted.

The problem with planting in seed trays is that the soil dries out quickly in hot weather, especially when the humidity is down in the 30s%, like it has been. I can water them and an hour later the poor little things are bone dry. That's not conducive for growing! So I decided to experiment. I put the seed trays in large shallow plastic containers that Dan found in a dumpster years ago. If I fill them with shallow water, I thought, I can prevent the seedlings from drying out.

Seed trays in water tray.

But mosquitoes have been bad this year. If I fill the blue trays with water, isn't that an open invitation to mama mosquitoes looking for places to lay eggs? So I thought, what if I fill the gaps with wood chips?

The wood chips should deter the mosquitoes, help keep the water from evaporating so quickly, and hopefully keep the seed trays a little cooler.

Seed trays in water tray with wood chip mulch.

A couple of days later...

Chinese cabbages sprouting.

Hopefully the rest will be up soon!

Anyone else working on their fall garden?

September 11, 2019

Solar Pantry Part 4: The Plan

At last we've come up with a plan! But before I jump into that, I'd like to summarize this blog series so far (for those just tuning in):

Solar Pantry Part 1: Feasibility
  • In which I count the cost of putting my pantry fridge and freezer on their own solar power system,
  • and learn that it's beyond our budget at the present time.
Solar Pantry Part 2: Analysis 
  • In which I analyze how and why I use my fridges and freezer,
  • and learn that 
    • many of the items I store in these appliances don't actually need refrigeration or freezing.
    • my pantry is simply too warm in summer for good food storage conditions.
  • In which I explore off-grid methods of keeping food without a fridge or freezer,
  • and get a couple of good ideas suitable for us. 

What I realized from these exercises is that my original goal was too narrow. We need to address not just freezing and refrigeration, also we need to improve our food storage conditions in general. In the light of that, Dan and I have come up with a three-phase plan:

Phase 1
  1. Move the freezer from the pantry to our enclosed back porch.
  2. Put the freezer only on solar power.
  3. Replace the old pantry refrigerator with a small chest freezer converted to a refrigerator. It will go on the back porch too.
Phase 2
  1. Update the pantry to make it more energy efficient:
    • better insulation in walls
    • replace old windows with energy efficient ones
  2. Work on ideas to cool the room in summer. Moving the fridge and freezer will certainly help with that. Other ideas:
    • ventilation, cool cupboard?
    • shade the window that gets afternoon sun
    • ice block "air conditioner?" (Ideas at Off Grid World.)
Phase 3
  • Make a root cellar.

Cost analysis for Phase 1 - I couldn't put both my old energy-guzzling fridge plus freezer on solar, but can I manage the freezer only? Based on the readings from my Kill-A-Watt meter, the freezer uses 1600 watts per day. If I've done my calculations correctly, here's what I've come up with. Remember, I only have $1500 for this project, but already have the solar panels.

2, 345-watt solar panels
6, 235 AH 6-volt deep cycle batteries
150-volt, 60-amp MPPT charge controller   
1000-watt pure sine wave inverter    

Admittedly, there are still a number of other things like panel racks, wiring, connectors, fuses, battery box, etc., but it looks like we have the funds for the major components. Following are a few notes related to the above.

Solar panels. 345 watts, 57 volts each x 2 panels = 690 total watts for the solar panel array.

Wiring. Fortunately, we only have about 25 feet between the panels and battery bank. That will save both in amount and size of wire needed.

Batteries. Why 6-volt? Why not 12-volt? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, because so far I haven't been able to source 12-volt deep cycle batteries locally, and shipping for batteries is very high. Marine and RV batteries sold around here are dual purpose, listing cranking amps and low amp-hours (usually 35 to 55). They aren't cheaper and I'd need more to get more amp-hours. Plus cranking batteries won't take as many recharges as true deep cycle batteries.

The second reason is because 6-volt batteries are more heavy-duty. 6 and 12's are about the same time size. Why aren't the 6-volt smaller? Because they use heavier plates, which means more discharge cycles.

So, wiring two 250 AH 6-volt batteries in series will double the voltage to 12. Wiring the two pairs in parallel will double the amp-hours to 500. That's not quite two day's worth of energy storage, but that's more than I've got on the grid! Plus those four batteries are within my budget, although I'm still trying to shop around.

So far the only place I've been able to find 6-volt lead acid batteries is at Batteries+Bulbs, and I'm having a hard time finding other sources. I miss the days of phone books, when all local options were listed topically in the yellow pages. Search engines favor SEO (search engine optimization), paid ads, and political favoritism, which doesn't help one wanting to explore all the options. [UPDATE: I also found them at Interstate Batteries for the same price. Batteries+ is closer, however, and offers a 10% discount for ordering online.]

Charge controller.
  690 watt solar panel array (57.3 volts)
÷ 12 volt battery bank
= 57.5 amp minimum charge controller (rounded up to 60)
I'm looking at the Outback FLEXmax 60.

Inverter. This converts the DC (direct current) electricity produced by the system for my AC (alternating current) appliances. Thanks to my Kill-A-Watt meter, I know that the freezer uses about 185 watts when it starts up, then quickly drops to 100 to 102 watts and gradually decreases to 87 watts. The freezer light uses 24 watts. Recommendations for sizing inverters vary depending on the solar expert, so I finally decided on a 1000-watt inverter with a 2000-watt surge capacity.

Chest fridge. I first read about converting a chest freezer to a chest fridge in Prepper's Total Grid Failure Handbook. Several readers mentioned using them and how-tos can be found online. Two are at New Life on a Homestead and A Self-Sufficient Life. For now, the chest fridge would be plugged into the grid, until I get a better idea of exactly how much electricity it uses. As a freezer, the model I'm looking at is 5 cubic feet and has an energy rating of 219 kWh per year or roughly 0.6 per day. That translates to 600 watts per day, but surely as a fridge it should consume less(?). An experiment I plan to try is using it as an ice box. If I can freeze enough ice bottles in the freezer, it's possible that I can keep the chest fridge cold enough. We'll see.

5 cubic feet is not very big for a fridge. It will replace the fridge in the pantry, but I'll still have the fridge in the kitchen. I figure this situation will force me to change my habits and routine, plus implement more alternatives to refrigeration. The most perishable items I refrigerate are milk and meat. After that I would say leftovers and salad greens, but really, everything else could be stored elsewhere if I had cooler storage conditions. That's where a cooler pantry and root cellar will come in.

So that's the plan. The first order of business is to clear out the back porch and get ready to move the freezer. It's about due for a defrost anyway. After that we'll just take it one step at a time.

Next  → Solar Pantry Project Part 5: Back Porch Preparations

Solar Pantry Part 4: The Plan © September 2019

September 7, 2019

Chicken Yard Project: Grazing Beds

Last time I showed you our new compost bin, this time I'll show you the grazing beds. Grazing beds are an excellent way to provide fresh greens to confined chickens. These are simply frames covered with heavy-duty chicken wire. Seed is planted in the beds and after it grows the chickens eat the fresh greens through the wire. The wire prevents them from overgrazing the bed or scratching up the grass and killing it.

New grazing beds where the old compost bin used to be.

Dan made a couple of these previously, and found that the 2-foot by 8-foot size easiest to manage. We already had two, so he made four more.

He planted wheat and oat seed in the beds. Both grow quickly and the chickens love the grass. Lettuce or herbs can be planted in the beds too; anything chickens love to graze.

One week later.

When the grass wears out the frames are moved to a new planting spot and the chickens enjoy scratching up what's left. By rotating planting, we should be able to keep a steady supply of fresh grazing for them.

Ready to graze.

Some people keep the beds fenced until the grass grows about 4 to 6 inches above the wire and then let their chickens in. That's an extra step we haven't gotten around to.

The chickens get their fresh greens without leaving the yard.

Dan plans to build a few more from time to time. We'd like to see the entire chicken yard filled with these eventually. The idea will be to rotate planting to keep a fresh supply of grass at all times. The chickens are happier and Dan is too. He hates seeing the ground so bear in their yard. Maybe someday we can let them out to pasture again, but for now, this works very well.

The last subgoal on the chicken yard project list is a duck house. That's in the works now, although several other things have pushed their way to the top of the to-do list. I'll show you the duck house as soon as it's done. Next time, I'll share the plan we've come up with for my solar backup project for the fridge and freezer in my pantry.

September 4, 2019

Chicken Yard Project: New Compost Bins

The chicken yard was Dan's August project, but it was delayed because...

... we had car trouble. It clanked terribly every time we started it or turned it off, sounding like something was fixin' to fall off. After checking all the connecting rod bearings, Dan finally figured out that the bolts on the flywheel were loose. He tightened them up and the clanking stopped. (Whew.)

The chicken yard project list had three subgoals:
  • compost bins
  • grazing beds
  • a duck house
Materials is always a first step, and Dan wanted to use what we had available. That meant cutting his lumber from an old pine tree he cut down last spring.

Last spring's felled pine tree cut into 8-foot sections and ready to mill.

Those logs became 4x4s, 2x4s, and boards.

He treats lumber for projects like this with old motor oil. He saves it whenever he changes the oil in a vehicle. He thins it with a little gasoline and either soaks the ends of posts or paints boards with it. The gasoline evaporates and the soaked in oil preserves the wood.

Posts soaking in spent motor oil.

I missed getting photos of building the compost bin, because I was tied to a kitchen filled with pears, apples, figs, elderberries, cowpeas, tomatoes and milk for cheesemaking. But I can show you the results.

All home-milled lumber.

We've always had a three bin system, but never managed to use all three bins, so we opted to try two bins. The boards for the shorter front wall are removable, making it easy to get a wheelbarrow in there for dumping or filling.

The back of the compost bin.

We moved the location too. The new bin backs up to the tractor path between the chicken yard and the workshop. The poultry yard has both a front and back gate, so this is a more convenient.

What did the chickens think?

"No way we're going in there."

They weren't convinced, even after Dan moved the compost from the old bins to the new. When I brought them the canning scraps they recognized the compost bucket and came running. I made a great show of dumping it into the new bin, but when I stepped back they just stood there looking at me. Not one chicken ran to gobble down my offerings. Thinking I was standing too close, I moved away. But instead of jumping into the new bin, they ran to the old and started scratching around in it. They knew I'd brought goodies and ran to where the goodies were supposed to be! I had toss several handfuls of scratch into the new bins before they caught on.

"Oh yeah! Food!"

The second item on the project list was to make more grazing beds. I'll show you those next time.

September 1, 2019

Book Review

I have Fern at "Thoughts from Frank and Fern" to thank for her review of my Prepper's Livestock Handbook. Please go check it out by clicking here! And do take a little time to explore their blog while you're there. If you're interested in prepping, homesteading, amateur radio, or all three, you'll find a lot of interesting things to read. They very much hit the nail on the head.

Book Review © Sept. 2019 by Leigh